Form and Content
Malcolm X, by virtue of his charismatic personality and his dynamic speaking, joined the small group of major black orators of the twentieth century that includes Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall, and A. Philip Randolph. He was different from the others in several respects: He was not an educated person, he was not a representative of the mainstream African American organizations, and he was not content to work within the bounds of gradualism, amelioration, desegregation, and legislation. Although he came from a rather orthodox Christian family background, he lived the life of the streets and of crime. He became a convert to the Nation of Islam and was a minister of that black American adaptation of the Islamic faith until he became disillusioned with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. He later founded his own group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which replaced his initial enterprise, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., an umbrella group that envisioned black community development through social, economic, political, and religious cooperation. He was assassinated at the height of his influence, just as he was about to deliver another of his fiery speeches, on February 21, 1965.
Malcolm’s career as a speaker and leader was undoubtedly influenced by his father, who was an influential Baptist preacher in Omaha, Nebraska, where Malcolm was born. The Reverend Earl Little was a tall black man, an elementary school dropout from Georgia who had married Louise Norton, a well-educated mulatto from Grenada, in the West Indies. In Philadelphia, the Littles encountered both the virulence of segregationist attitudes and the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaica-born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey proposed a solution to the racial problem that existed in the United States: a return to Africa and the establishment of black states with high self-esteem and enviable cultural achievements. Unfortunately, Garvey’s efforts came to little end, and Garvey lived his later life in exile in Jamaica.
The Reverend Earl Little’s emotional preaching style, typical of black Baptists, and his espousal of the Garvey doctrine of self-improvement and separatism certainly influenced the young Malcolm’s later social and political agendas. Harassment from white supremacist groups in both Wisconsin and Michigan hardened the attitudes of both father and son. After Malcolm’s father was killed by a streetcar and his mother was committed to a mental hospital, he was separated from his siblings and placed with foster parents. These were all wrenching experiences that may well have accounted for his subsequent antisocial, anti-Christian, antiwhite attitudes that were expounded in speech after speech. Although he liked English and history in school, he was seldom academically interested or successful. Although he was intent upon influencing the larger black population, he was never an able or fluent writer, and his knowledge of history—even of black and African history—was sketchy and approximate at best. His life experiences provided him with great enthusiasm for the correction of injustices and affronts, but his intellectual background was no match for that of most leaders of black groups.
After entering the hustling world of Roxbury, a Boston suburb, Malcolm moved to Harlem, where he commenced his encounter with the underworld, selling and using drugs, soliciting for prostitutes, selling bootleg liquor, and committing robbery. He returned to the Boston area and organized a robbery gang. In 1946, at the age of twenty-one, he was sent to Charlestown State Prison. It was there that he was introduced to the Black Muslim sect headed by Elijah Muhammad. He quickly became an outspoken advocate of its racist viewpoint, uncritically endorsing the view that “white devils” and the “white man’s Christian world” were the source of all the problems of the black folk. After his release from prison, Malcolm soon became the most popular and notorious of the Black Muslim spokesmen. As assistant minister of a mosque in Detroit, Michigan, Malcolm increased its membership tremendously.
On March 24, 1961, Malcolm achieved some stature and publicity by giving a speech before the Harvard Law School Forum. This was at the beginning of a decade of civil unrest in the United States. The war in Vietnam divided the country politically, civil rights agitation disturbed the peace, and city after city burned in riots. Malcolm advocated revolution. He advocated a separate black state or states, though this was clearly a constitutional impossibility. He espoused black conversion to Islam, though not by mass migration to Islamic countries, where American blacks would be alien in culture, language, and social behavior. He predicted that Armageddon would see the white race extinguished and the black race resplendent and supreme. Further, he extolled Elijah Muhammad as “divinely taught and sent to us by God Himself,” as the Black Muslims’ “divine leader and teacher,” and as savior of the twenty million African Americans. Finally, he maintained that the world was approaching its end and that the white world should repent for its treatment of African Americans.
The vision of this speech is clearly apocalyptic,...
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